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House Passes Bill to Restore and Prioritize NOAA Weather Funding

On Tuesday, 1 April, a much-revamped version of the “Weather Forecasting Improvement Act of 2014” (HR. 2413) passed the House. The bill is intended to prioritize the forecasting and timely prediction of “high impact weather events,” such as tornadoes and hurricanes, and authorizes US$383 million for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather research & development over the next four years.

In a document accompanying the bill, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee notes that NOAA has tracked a rise in weather events costing more than US$1 billion and that about US$500 billion of the GDP is generated by weather-sensitive parts of the economy.

The Weather Forecasting Improvement Act requires NOAA to develop an R&D plan to “restore and maintain United States leadership in numerical weather prediction and forecasting,” with emphasis on high-powered computing that will enhance U.S. forecast modeling. Recently, the National Weather Service’s Global Forecast System model has fallen behind European models in accuracy (for example, on the storm track of Hurricane Sandy). In the bill, NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) is directed to create an advisory committee to direct these efforts internally, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is required to create an Interagency Committee for Advancing Weather Services to improve coordination of weather research and forecasting activities across the government. Overall, the bill would dedicate nearly US$400 million of NOAA’s budget to this goal over the next four years, although it does not increase the overall authorization for NOAA or OAR. For 2014, the bill authorizes US$65 million for weather labs and cooperative institutes, US$18 million for weather and air chemistry research programs, and US$14 million for technology transfer requirements (US$83 million total, with a provision that would increase it to US$96 million if sequestration caps are lifted). For each fiscal year from 2015–2017, the bill authorizes US$100 million (US$80 million for labs and US$20 million for tech transfer).

Originally, the bill contained language that would have made weather forecasting and prediction the most important priorities of NOAA R&D. However, the language was amended in committee, and the bipartisan version that passed only deals with NOAA’s weather prediction functions and doesn’t restrict other oceanic or atmospheric research. In a surprising move for a committee that is normally hostile to funding social science in R&D investments, the bill contains specific provisions to incorporate more social science into weather forecasting with the goal of “improving the understanding of how the public receives, interprets, and responds to warnings and forecasts.”

Much of NOAA’s funding currently focuses on two satellite platforms related to weather forecasting (JPSS and GOES-R). However, this bill also encourages collaboration and support from the non-federal weather research community, including private groups and NGOs, and stipulates that not less than 30% of funds authorized for R&D should be made available through competitive grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements for the this purpose. It also contains plans for purchasing privately generated weather data and conducting cost-benefit analysis on current satellite/observing systems and before approving new ones, perhaps a response to the fact that the current satellite programs are behind schedule and might face reduced funding in the future.

The bill will now be sent to the Senate for consideration.

— Jessica Ball
GSA Science Policy Fellow